Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 352 pages; 2016.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a crime novel and been completely transfixed from the first page. But that’s what happened when I opened Jane Harper’s The Dry, a book I had not heard anything about and had only stumbled upon by accident when I was looking for Australian reads to download onto my Kindle before heading to Greece for a week.
The book, which is set in the fictional country town of Kiewarra in rural Australia — about 500km north-west of Melbourne — is the first by Harper, a British-born journalist now based in Melbourne (she writes for the tabloid newspaper Herald-Sun), and the story itself could have been lifted from the headlines: a murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse. The only survivor — and witness — is a baby.
But the case isn’t clear-cut. Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the farm, like all others in the area, had been struggling financially. Luke Hadler’s mother doesn’t believe her son was capable of killing himself, nor his loved ones, and suspects that he may have been murdered by a debt collector. The police in Clyde, the nearest big town with a fully staffed cop shop, think otherwise and have closed the case.
Enter Aaron Falk, a federal police officer specialising in white-collar crime, who grew up in the town but left under a cloud when he was 16. Luke was his best friend at high school and the pair kept in touch. When he returns for the funeral, Mrs Hadler asks him to look into the case for her — even if he isn’t “that sort of police officer”.
Working under the radar with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, the pair’s unofficial investigation reveals some disturbing facts that suggest Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child after all. His own death also looks suspicious. But how to prove it?
Running in tandem with this storyline is a darker one involving Falk’s own past, which fleshes out why he fled town for the city, dragging his father in tow, two decades earlier. Through the clever use of flashbacks, Harper does a good job of revealing small nuggets of information that force the reader to constantly reassess their opinion, not just of Falk but of Hadler as well. Is either of them reliable? And just because Falk’s a cop, should we regard him as trustworthy?
A claustrophobic portrait
Harper’s portrayal of small-town life played out against a backdrop of ongoing severe drought is an authentic and claustrophobic one. The community, which revolves around the school and the pub, is riven by poverty and personal tensions, and rumour and gossip abound. Anyone who’s lived in a small community will recognise the types of people and behaviours presented here.
The characterisation is richly drawn: the simmering tensions of people at their wit’s end are deftly depicted, and the town’s local “ratbags” — who have grudges to bear and like to solve problems with their fists — never strays into caricature. The people and the unpleasant atmosphere in which they live feels believable.
And for a story that is so fast-paced and tightly plotted, Harper hasn’t skipped on detail: her prose moves along at a clip but she has a keen eye for landscape, atmosphere and little things that matter:
The porch door that used to be yellow was now an insipid shade of blue, he noted with something like indignation. It had pockmarks where the paint was peeling. He could see flashes of yellow underneath, gaping like fatty scars. The wooden steps where he’d sat fiddling with toys and footy cards now sagged with age. Underneath, a beer can nestled in the flaxen grass.
Quite frankly, The Dry is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. That I failed to guess the “solution” (I’ve read so many crime books over the years I usually spot them long before the ending) is a testament to her skill. Even the denouement, usually the weakest link in a crime novel because, well, the author has to wrap the story up somehow, is deftly handed and quite a surprise. Colour me impressed.
Last year The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. I can see why.
This is my 41st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 27th for #AWW2016.
26 thoughts on “‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper”
Yep, I loved this one too (although crime fiction is usually not my thing). I heard Jane Harper speak at a writer’s festival and she was so engaging and smart that I rushed out to buy it!
Oh, I bet she was great to listen to… she’s really captured something of small town life here. I grew up in a small town and the locals were very quick to pigeon hole me when I returned for a 2year stint after living elsewhere for about 10 years.
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Oooo I read and loved the premise of this one when you posted your pic reading it on instagram… something compelling about the title alone but the review makes me definitely shift it from the wishlist to the must read list.
It’s such a great read, Poppy. I’ve become increasingly picky about the kinds of crime books I read and this one certainly ticked all the boxes in terms of delivering a believable well-written and fast-paced crime story. Highly recommended. (I gave it five stars on GoodReads.)
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Had a look…not published till next year but then is valuable on Kindle😀 rude not to!
Oh, I hadn’t clocked it wasn’t available: I thought it had been published in the U.K. I bought the Kindle edition; the best £4.99 I’ve spent in ages!
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Not my usual genre but I like what I’ve read about this in terms of her ability to capture the essence of a small rural town and sounds like this could be a great escapist read for the end of the year!
This is a wonderful review, and it makes me really want to read the book. I missed it when you posted it a year ago (!) and just came upon it via https://jiescribano.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/review-the-dry-2016-by-jane-harper/
I hope you get to read it, Nan. She’s just had a new book published in Australia. I ordered it on import and hope to read it in a week or two.